ow. pain. bruise. bits of missing skin. Let’s glamourise the frailty of our bodies when the hit the floor. Digging a ditch today as we learnt each other’s movement based off Botticelli’s etchings of Dante’s Inferno, after a two hour master class with new Dance North director and former Ultima Vez dancer Gavin Webber (more greeting the floor at speed), and deep thick wet suffocating blanket heat, this was the hard stuff. The fun stuff is the playing and making and experimenting, the work is threading the needle with it, making something of it. This is why I don’t have showings, or explain any lack in my work with, “oh, we’re still developing it, this is a work-in-progress”. Whatever is seen is within itself finished. For me that’s what making art and choreographing is about; the technical process of making sense of all the disparate ideas and coalescing this into a finite temporal and spatial intensity which is the performance.
So what am I doing messing around with Cantonese Opera, and all the chinggg-chinggg-chinggg stuff and satanic face-paint, long feather antennae, and over-active eyebrows and teeth? For almost four years I’ve been hanging out in Guangzhou on a semi-regular basis, and spent last autumn and winter in Taipei. Two completely different cities, with completely different histories and cultures. Both Chinese in the same way that Quebec and France are French, or France and Poland are European.
One of the very first visual designs of hell was the pairs of menacing 门神 Door Gods, and this idea that I wanted to make contemporary art/performance that displayed the evidence of my daily life in these cities. I’ve seen too much bad cross-cultural fusion of mediocre and antiquated contemporary dance with taiqi/calligraphy/bamboo/other clichéd articles of Chinese/generic Asian culture all of which has about as much to do with contemporary Asian life as Opera does with people hanging out in Rome. But for some reason, probably in part the “exotic other” of Asia, this can get passed off as ‘contemporary’ when it shuffles on the festival/tour circuit around the western world.
My experience of China does not exist. I have never been to China. China is an artificial and disingenuous fabrication. Though I have been to Guangzhou and the food is sublime, and I can say the same about Taiwan. Does this also apply to Zürich contra Switzerland, or Melbourne and Australia? Let’s say, “yes”.
Can I reduce my experience to something other than a pre-verbal milieu, in some way both extract it from an ocean of sensations, make it material, and also conceptualise it in spoken and written language? This was the crux of the rehearsal today, and I’m pretty sure, more broadly that of hell itself.
We’ve been working with the Cantonese Opera film, 貍貓換太子 – Racoon for a Prince, and I initially set Luke the task of imitating the fraudulent prince who gets smacked on the head with a long and heavy wooden pole after much procrastination and 哎呀-ing, but today brought Gab in as the punishing bearded General, and finally in a moment of taking artistic licence, Gala and myself dragging the corpses of Lilly and Bonnie in place of the dragon staffs the aides present to Luke. But for it to slip into campness, kitch, parody, or anything other than absolutely seriousness would make it no better than the prodigious fakery of the kind of art I despise.
So the question is what am I doing playing around with this whole China thing? Is it simply an attempt to put it into my work because I should, because I’ve lived there long enough I should work that angle and show the effect of Guangzhou and Taipei on my art (if in fact there is any)? I’ll assume it isn’t, or rather, I’ll assume in part it’s because I want to see this influence in my work, which has been part of my life for the previous four years. Beyond that, it gets tricky.
If it’s about the impact of these vast, contemporary urban cities on me, why am I looking to Canton Opera over some representation of Taipei’s Ximending suburb, a million ill-tuned street-racer scooters, or something else … coal miners … motorbike taxis … Liwan Hutong, Dongshankou, Jiangnan Dadao … Maybe it’s in part because the opera is on that singular obsession of China, the pirate DVD.
That, and Canton Opera is the death-metal of the orient.